In one of the first scenes in the Japanese series What Did You Eat Yesterday? Shiro Kakei is being asked by his nosy colleagues during a typical random office chat about what he ate the day before. Having assumed his answer would be a spartan meal that reflects his reserved demeanor, they are taken by surprise when he matter-of-factly lists elaborately prepared dishes that made up his dinner.
We soon learn they know very little of their unassuming colleague. In the small law firm where he works, 45-year-old Shiro (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is known as a man of few words, but an effective, though unambitious lawyer. At home he is a gourmet, an excellent cook, and a penny-pinching homemaker who shops for discounted goods with a neighboring housewife. Furthermore, Shiro is a gay guy who is living with his partner for three years, hairdresser Kenji Yabuki (Seiyō Uchino).
The 30-minute-long drama centers around the lives of Shiro and Kenji as a couple in their mid 40s living in Tokyo. The show is an adaptation of a manga series of the same name by manga artist Fumi Yoshinaga.
One look at the title, one assumes food is at the center of this slice-of-life drama, the way many Japanese TV series are. And, indeed, food is shown prominently—all glorious, mouthwatering like in any self-respecting foodporn—while being cooked by Shiro in his kitchen or being consumed by the couple at the dining table. We even get to learn how to cook these dishes.
But the heart of the show is neither on the frying pan nor on the plate. Rather it is in the frank and nuanced depiction of life as coupled middle-aged gay men in contemporary Japan without the usual cliches.
The unhostile reaction of Shiro’s neighboring family when they find out he is gay, for example – or that of Kenji’s customer – as well Shiro’s family’s acceptance of his sexuality is a refreshing change from the typical homophobic Asians often portrayed on screen. Still, there are more than hints here and there that show full acceptance is still mostly elusive for the LGBT community in Japan.
“I’m prepared to accept everything about you, whether you’re gay or a criminal,” Shiro’s kimono-wearing mom tells him earnestly, oblivious to the implicit meaning of this statement, well meant as it was.
Later Shiro recalls this to Kenji, “They accept me like I’m a criminal.”
What the show does best, however, is its realistic and intimate portrayal of mature gay relationship. The scenes of the couple’s first encounter in a gay bar, their sometimes-awkward double dates with the strange duo Kohinata and Wataru, the unusual but poignant legal request made by an elderly gay acquaintance to help his partner of many years – all these add rich dimensions to the characters and their narratives. Kenji’s insecurity and jealousy is also understandable, as we learn more about the dynamics of their relationship.
Representation of gay guys in pop culture, especially in mainstream Asian films and series, are often reduced to stereotypes: sex-driven beefcakes, the flamboyant queer-eye types, or the sad conflicted victims. What Did You Eat is consciously – and rather painfully – stripped of any sexualization of the men. Whether to avoid censorship or for a weightier intention, this works for the series more, humanizing all the characters by showing the banal domestic lives of people who have been stigmatized, exoticized or merely othered so much in mainstream pop culture.
The dialogues are often understated but sometimes verging on profound. Even more fun and telling is the internal dialogues, like when Shiro contemplates how to seem more manly while eat a watermelon at his neighbor’s apartment resulting in a comical disaster.
“Actually, your looks, speech and personality aren’t gay at all,” the impish Wataru goads Shiro on one of their double dates. “You’re no classic type.”
To which, Shiro replies: “I’m sort of on the periphery of gayness, like a minority within minority.”
Still, the easily flustered Shiro, clad in suits and ties, is a yang to the cheerful, childlike casually dressed Kenji’s yin. Their love story is a reminder that gay coupled love is no different than non-gay coupled love. They are fraught with insecurity, but they can also be meaningful. They can be frustrating, despite those moments of tenderness. And though sometimes they may feel flat, they provide comfort and contentment.
What Did You Eat Yesterday is currently on Netflix